Leptospirosis and Weil's Disease

Health and safety information on Weil's Disease

The national rat population is increasing and between 50 and 60% of rats carry and excrete the bacterium Leptospira icterohaemorrhagiae in their urine.

If your club operates in freshwater then it is important that your members are aware of the risks of Leptospirosis and Weil's Disease.

Leptospira bacteria are often carried by rats and excreted in their urine thus contaminating water and muddy soil. The bacteria can enter the human body through cuts, grazes, mouth or mucous membranes such as those which line the nose and ears.  

Infection with the bacterium causes an illness which has similar symptoms to flu – temperature, muscle aches and nausea. In mild cases these symptoms can be easily treated and patients will likely recover in a few weeks. In England and Wales an average of 40 cases of Leptospirosis are reported each year however very few of these go on to develop the more serious Weil’s Disease which can be fatal; Since 1996, there have only been four deaths from Weil’s Disease.

Although most cases of Leptospirosis are mild it is important that water users are aware of the risks and can recognise the symptoms. Sailors, boardsailors, canoeists, oarsmen, swimmers and fishermen are at risk in any area with a population of rats.  Any skin wound or blister, old or new, may be infected if immersed in water polluted with the bacteria.  

If you start to feel ill after coming into contact with water that could be contaminated with Leptospira then the best approach is to consult your doctor. It is vital that the doctor be told of any waterborne activity you have been involved in as the symptoms are easily confused with those of flu and if you have an otherwise ‘clean occupation’ the possibility of Weil’s Disease may be overlooked in the early stages.  

 From 1st April 2015, the new combined diagnostic and reference leptospirosis service is provided by the Rare and Imported Pathogen Laboratory (RIPL, PHE Porton) and the Bacteriology Reference Department (BRD, PHE Colindale).

The former Leptospirosis Reference Unit (LRU) in Hereford, which has provided the national gold-standard service for over 30 years, no longer operates.

The new service offers a coordinated approach to patient centred diagnostics. The single port of entry for testing and clinical information will be at RIPL.

There is no clinic at Public Health England Porton and they are unable to see patients or give phone advice direct to members of the public. All samples must be referred from a GP practice or hospital.

There is more detailed information concerning leptospirosis and testing for potential infections on the gov.uk website.

If you have any questions please contact environment@rya.org.uk.